previous next

Chapter 13:

June 12-20, 1864.

  • By the left flank
  • -- Wilcox's Landing -- across the James -- on towards Petersburg -- why Petersburg was not taken -- what Hancock says -- to the front -- we fire the First shells into the Cockade City -- the Fortieth Massachusetts infantry -- again forward -- two moves more to the front line -- relieved by Colored troops of the Ninth Corps.

Rumors of another move were now currently reported, and although men were busy constructing a line of breastworks in the rear, we had long since discovered that such an indication was no augury on which to base calculations for a continued stay. It was on the Sabbath, June 12th, that our caissons were moved from the cross-roads, two miles further to the rear. This. surely looked ominous; but rumor, to our minds, was resolved into certainty when, late in the afternoon, all the bands struck up lively airs, playing until dark. ‘That means a move,’ was the remark on all sides, for we had noted this coincidence on other occasions; and sure enough, true to the portent, orders were received to be in readiness to draw out immediately after dark. So our limber chests are at once remounted, our guns drawn silently down out of the works by hand, and we are off again. Proceeding to the caissons, we await our designated place in column. We evidently have a night march on hand. It is an interesting [274] study to us, as we wait, to observe the sombre columns move silently and steadily along. Not a word is spoken aloud by those thousands, and each man seems buried in the silence of his own thoughts. What those thoughts are, an analysis of our own at that time may give us an idea, and that analysis, in brief, can be stated in these interrogatories—What next? Who next?

Our march presented the usual chapter of halts, miring of caissons, taking of wrong road by some portion of the corps, etc., together conspiring to bring this particular night up to the standard of all such, in the respect of being disagreeable. We marched about seventeen miles. Our course took us past Dispatch Station, on the York River Railroad, and the exceeding rapidity with which we had been put over the road to that point seemed, in our minds, to give special fitness to the name. The light of day at last began to creep up from the east and dispel the drowsiness which always persisted most obstinately just before dawn, and the comparative silence of the hour was broken by some grim humorist muttering, ‘Why don't the army move?’ We smile internally as we think how many of the grumbling, unappreciative stay-at-homes, on taking up their papers of that morning, shall wonder what this lull in war news can mean.

But we now make pause for breakfast,—a pause that continues for about six hours, and which we gladly improve in making up sleep. At noon we were off again, and by 1 o'clock crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, where a pontoon had been laid, and over which Warren's Fifth Corps had passed in advance. This dark and already historic stream rolled sluggishly along between densely wooded and marshy banks, and the whole neighborhood, [275] to our lively imaginations, seemed pervaded with the gloom and miasmata with which the stream had been associated in our minds.

We pursued our march somewhat leisurely the most of the afternoon, through a level tract of country thinly populated, but as yet our destination was simply conjectural. Some said we were bound to Harrison's Landing. At all events we were on the direct course to James River. ‘Twelve miles to the river,’ replies a staff-officer to an inquiry on this point. ‘Twenty, at the least calculation,’ is the observation of another equally unreliable authority. The negroes are also vacant of. any information on this head; but an old man, standing in his doorway, to whom we broach the query, affirms, with positiveness, that to the Landing by this road is ‘just five miles.’ Fifteen minutes afterwards we interview a pretty woman, who has come out to her gate to see us pass. After listening civilly to some secession talk, we put the same conundrum of distance to her; whereat she displays her accurate (?) knowledge of arithmetic and local geography by declaring the river to be just six miles from a barn which she points out some distance ahead. This finished our examination of the inhabitants on this topic, and we trudged on, assured that ultimately we should solve the problem for ourselves. We passed over the intervening space at an unusually rapid rate, and after dusk, parked in a luxuriant field of clover on the farm of a Dr. Wilcox, and watered our horses in the James River at what is known as Wilcox's Landing.1 [276]

Tuesday morning, June 14th, the troops began to cross the river, being transported in steamboats of varied description, that the government had assembled here in large numbers for that purpose. A pontoon was begun in the forenoon at Cole's Ferry, a short distance below the Landing, and finished at midnight This bridge was considered a remarkable achievement in pontoon engineering, it being two thousand feet long, and the channel boats being anchored in thirteen fathoms of water.2

The troops continued crossing all this and the succeeding day, our turn not coming until during the afternoon of the 15th. Our guns were loaded on one boat, and the men and horses on another; but the guns did not reach us until evening. Among the boats used in the ferriage were the ‘Jefferson,’ an old East Boston ferry-boat, and the ‘Winnissimmet,’ that plied so many years beween Boston and Chelsea, and when we embarked on board the latter to make the crossing, it seemed almost as if we were at home once more.

The landing having been effected at what was known as Windmill Point, we went into camp for the night, not far from the brink of the river; but sunrise of the 16th found us up again and resuming the advance. The country we were now traversing was quite level, and had not been the theatre of warfare, hence houses, fences, and crops were generally undisturbed.

From the estates of some of the more wealthy [277] farmers the occupants had fled—a foolish proceeding on their part, for inhabited houses were, as a rule, more respectfully treated than those that were vacated. The fact of a family being fugitives was taken as conclusive evidence that their sympathies were enlisted on the side of rebellion, and hence, in the expressive language of the army slang, the soldiers frequently ‘went through’ such dwellings. The barns in this section were well filled with tobacco in the various stages of curing; and lovers of the weed took the opportunity to replenish their stock at a figure considerably lower than sutlers' prices.

Our destination was as yet only surmised, but every indication pointed to the correctness of that surmise; viz., that we were aiming at Petersburg. About the middle of the afternoon we reached the Petersburg and City Point Railroad. And now, in order that the reader may follow more understandingly, the movements of the corps3 will be noted in brief, from the time of its arrival at the James until we rejoined it before the city, and any of the Company who read this will, we hope, obtain a little clearer view of what the ‘Old Second Corps’ was doing, and why it failed to do more at this time.

Gen. Hancock says the corps was all across at an early hour on the morning of the 15th, save one regiment and four batteries. On the evening of the 14th Gen. Meade had given him orders to hold his troops in readiness to move, informing him that he might be instructed to march towards Petersburg. Later in the evening he was ordered to move by the most direct route to that city (after having received from Gen. Butler and distributed sixty thousand rations), and take position where the City Point [278] Railroad crossed Harrison's Creek. At 4 o'clock A. M. of the 15th, Hancock notified Meade that the rations were not yet received. He repeated this report to the commander of the army at 6.30 o'clock A. M., and continued waiting for them until 9 A. M., and then gave orders by signal telegraph for the head of the column to move. This miscarried, and the column did not start until 10.30 A. M. Birney was in advance. Gen. Meade afterwards gave his approval to Hancock's moving on without the rations. After a while it was learned that the map by which they were attempting to march was utterly worthless, Harrison's Creek being inside the Rebel lines some miles from where it was laid down. The head of the column was then turned from the Prince George Court House road easterly towards Old Court House. It was then but six miles from Petersburg, and the time was not yet 3 o'clock P. M. At 5.30 P. M., as the column neared Old Court House, a place distant less than three miles south-west of City Point, a despatch was handed Hancock, directed to Gen. Gibbon or any division commander, from Grant, urging expedition in getting to the assistance of Gen. Smith, who, it stated, had carried the outer works in front of Petersburg. Hancock now turned Birney's and Gibbon's divisions in that direction.

‘No time’ [says Hancock] ‘had been lost on the march during the day, although it was excessively hot, the road was covered with clouds of dust, and but little water was found on the route, causing severe suffering among the men.’

Singular as it may seem, this despatch from Grant was the first intimation Hancock had received that Petersburg was to be attacked.4 Had [279] he been thus apprised earlier, there would have been no waiting six hours for rations, or floundering about in quest of a place that had no practical existence, and the city would, in all probability, have been entered that night.

‘At 6.30 P. M.’ [the report continues] ‘the head of Birney's division had arrived at the Bryant House on Bailey's Creek, about one mile in rear of the position of Gen. Hinks's division of the Eighteenth Corps . . . . . Gen. Smith now asked me to relieve his troops from the works they had carried, and so Birney and Gibbon were ordered forward for that purpose. . . . This took till 11 P. M., too late for further advance. The works were immediately adapted for defence against the enemy and guns placed in them.’

The golden opportunity to seize the ‘Cockade City’ by a coup-de-main had now passed, for by this time the advance guard of Lee's veterans was rapidly defiling across the Appomattox to its relief; and when, in the morning of the 16th, at 6 o'clock, Birney and Gibbon advanced their lines to reconnoitre, they found their old antagonist confronting them before the ‘Avery House.’ During the forenoon, in the absence of Gen. Meade, Hancock was instructed to take command of all the forces in front of Petersburg and reconnoitre, with a view of finding a vulnerable point. This was done, and the hill occupied by the ‘Hare House’5 was decided upon by Gen. Meade, who had now arrived, as the best place to attack. The assault was made by the Second Corps at 6 P. M., and some ground gained, but with heavy loss. The enemy made several desperate but futile efforts to retake the lost ground.

On our arrival at the City Point Railroad, late in the afternoon of the 15th, we heard from cavalry videttes our first intelligence concerning the capture of the outer works of Petersburg. The sun [280] was just setting when, tired, hot, and dusty, we turned from the road and clambered upon an elevated spot amid a mass of stumps and brush, from which the spires of the city were visible, to await orders. It was when Birney and Gibbon were advancing their lines in front, and to the right of the ‘Hare House.’ We had heard skirmishing in progress for some time, and now it had increased to the firing of volleys. There was sharp work on hand. From the tops of our carriages we saw over the somewhat wooded hills, long lines of smoke, and fitful flashes of fire beneath. Now and then a Rebel shell came into our vicinity, serving the purpose, at least, of keeping our interest from flagging; but as the darkness deepened all sounds died away, and we were just reconciling ourselves to spending the night there—indeed, many were already wrapped in their blankets—when orders came to he ready to move in five minutes. Having cut a path through the brush for the freer passage of the teams, we moved immediately into the road, and were directed to the front line. We passed through the captured line by a large fort that stood at the side of the road, and turned into the thoroughfare leading from Prince George's Court House to the city, soon reaching the position assigned us. It was in a field on the right of the road. The frequent snapping of rifles, and the occasional ‘zip’ of a bullet, apprised us of our proximity to the picket line, and admonished us to protect ourselves by redoubts. By the time they were finished it was midnight, and giving the ‘Johnnies’ a shot or two to celebrate their completion, we lay down behind them and were soon asleep.

We were up bright and early on the 16th, expecting a renewal of the attack, and while thus waiting [281]

Lieut. Charles E. Pierce

[282] [283] were somewhat surprised to see a battery of Napoleons come up to relieve us, and still more so at being ordered back into the fort we passed the night before, now adapted for defence against the enemy. During the morning Barlow, and Burnside (whose corps had now come up) advanced, gaining some ground, and Birney and Gibbon resumed their movement of the night previous, taking the hill occupied by the ‘Hare House,’ and repulsing several attempts to recapture it On this hill Fort Stedman was afterwards erected. But the day was an uneventful one for the Battery, being mainly devoted to resting and ‘cleaning up,’—two by no means unimportant enterprises in connection with active campaigning.6

The spires of Petersburg were now in full view, though distant, perhaps, two miles. By order of Gen. Birney we gave our pieces ample elevation and tired the first shells known to have been thrown into the city; but for long months afterwards how was the doomed town riddled and battered by every kind of projectile!

At 6 o'clock in the afternoon the roar of another attack came up from our front. It was the Ninth Corps and Barlow's Division advancing to the assault of the enemy's lines. Barlow lost heavily, and little ground was gained by our side. During this night, Hancock's wound, received at Gettysburg, troubling him afresh, he turned the command over to Gen. Birney, who retained it till June 27.7 [284]

On the 18th, the Fortieth Massachusetts Infantry came up and occupied the line at our left. They had recently come from South Carolina, and as we saw each other last at Boxford, Mass., we had many greetings and questions to exchange after the manner of old friends. They told us of the siege of Charleston and the battle of Olustee in Florida, but declared they never knew what campaigning meant till they joined the Army of the Potomac.

At noon we were again ordered to the front, and in the mid-day heat and dust advanced across a cornfield, over which was strewn the debris of the battle fought the day before. Newly-made mounds were to be seen scattered at short intervals over the ground, covering many a brave soldier who had crossed his last river. The trees on the margin of this field, torn with shells and bullets, showed to some extent the severity of the fighting. But there was to be still further fighting to-day, for our skirmishers, having advanced in the morning preparatory to a grand assault, found the Rebels had abandoned the temporary line held by them, and taken up a more formidable position about a mile nearer the city.8 This made new dispositions necessary, and deferred the proposed assault until 3 P. M. Meanwhile, when we had reached the abandoned Rebel line, we set to work with pick and shovel to reverse it for our use, and at 2 o'clock received orders to open on the enemy's new line now seen as a bank of red earth, at this point, about twelve hundred yards distant. From that time till dark we [285] kept up a continuous shelling upon them, while the infantry were engaged in making the assault; but our troops were repulsed at every point with a mournful loss of life, for Lee's final position, which he was then occupying along Cemetery Hill, was impregnable.9

All hope of now succeeding in taking the city by assault was at an end, and so far as this was the object aimed at by Grant, the campaign was a failure. The experiment had cost our army ten thousand men. And now began the siege of Petersburg, and the strong earthworks to which Gen. Hancock alludes were constructed in ‘a systematic line.’

At the conclusion of the assault we unharnessed and spent a peaceful night, and the next morning, the Sabbath, opened quietly enough. But before noon we were sent for from further front, and Lieut. Granger rode forward in company with a staff officer to find a place for us in the new line. He returned with a bullet-hole through the sleeve of his blouse, and gave the order to ‘limber up.’

‘What kind of a place are we going into, Lieutenant?’ inquired one of the men.

‘That's the kind,’ was his rejoinder, holding up to view his riddled sleeve. ‘Look at this!’

Having cut an opening through the works for our passage forward, we advanced one piece at a time, and creeping cautiously up under cover of a thick grove of trees, through which bullets were constantly rattling, we reached the next line, and took position within five hundred yards of the enemy.

We at once began to strengthen the line, doing it at a disadvantage under the fire of sharpshooters. This being done, we opened on the enemy's works [286] at short range; but as there was a line of troops in our front that was endangered by the pieces of lead flying from our shells, an evil peculiar to rifled projectiles,10 under cover of darkness we moved forward once more, and established ourselves on a side hill in the very front line.

Our situation here was somewhat peculiar. The left piece was at the foot of the hill, while the right was some distance higher up; and all the guns were below the level of the Rebel works, which at this point ran along a cut of the Petersburg and Norfolk [287] Railroad,—so it was said. They were scarcely two hundred and fifty yards distant.

Having sunk the limbers, sent the horses to the rear, and strengthened the line by building it higher than our heads, leaving embrasures, occupied when not in use by screens similar to those constructed at Cold Harbor, we spent what was left of the night in. resting. When daylight of the 20th dawned, firing began, and the quick, sharp whiz of the Rebel bullets would have informed us of our unusual nearness to the enemy's lines had sight failed to convey such information. Now and then we would take down the screens from the embrasures and treat their marksmen, who fired at us through loop-holes left along the top of their line, to a few percussion shells, but only a few, for a brief time sufficed them to send a small hailstorm of bullets at each porthole. A Rebel battery, nearly opposite, was kept perfectly mute by the Union sharpshooters. The day was intensely warm; and shut in as we were by woods and rising ground, we were glad, when not engaged, to seek the shade of our half-shelters pitched against the works. But the day did not pass without its amusing scenes. All going to the rear, for any purpose whatsoever, must be done under fire, so completely were we commanded by the Rebels and Rebel lines; and to see the lively dodging and scampering of any courier or visitor to our part of the line when he unwittingly came within sight and range of the enemy, was provocative of hearty laughter. But it took on a serious aspect when a soldier, coming, as one did, to call upon friends in a regiment stationed next us, was shot dead in their very sight. Yet even this scene could cast but a temporary gloom over the witnesses, so hardened does human nature become by repeated experiences. [288]

The Seventy-second Pennsylvania Regiment of the Second Brigade, Second Division, was on our right flank, and the term of service of seven of their companies ended that night. They were a jolly lot, and their joviality bubbled over towards the ‘Confeds’ in plentiful showers of lead. Twenty or thirty of them would level their rifles over the works at a time and fire in a volley, then lying low they would wait for the response, which was never long in coming from the appreciative ‘Johnnies.’ When their ammunition was exhausted they fired away their ramrods. It was a pastime, harmless enough to those immediately engaged in it, but decidedly disagreeable—not to use a stronger expression—to any who might be passing to or from the rear. But night came at last, and under its cover we were relieved by colored troops from the Ninth Corps, and, with our merry support, drew out from the trenches.

Morning reports.


June 13. One horse died of exhaustion. .One pole broken.

June 16. One caisson wheel disabled.

June 17. Serg't C. E. Pierce, privates Gowell and Benjamin G. Pedrick sent to hospital.

June 18. One horse died of exhaustion.

June 19. Private Win. H. Bickford sent to hospital.


Wilcox was said to have two sons in the Rebel army, both privates, although one of them had a good military education. We were especially amused at the nonchalance of one of the Doctor's old slaves, who had run away with McClellan's army when it was in this vicinity, but who had now returned to his wife and children, and was selling off pigs and chickens to the soldiers, alleging—with how much truth we cannot say — that they were his own. The Doctor had a guard put over his spacious and well-filled corn barn, but the fortune of War had decreed it to the Union, and in the afternoon a detachment of wagons from the forage train carted it all away. Private Diary.

2 Swinton.

3 Taken from Gen. Hancock's Official Report, which is before me.


Had Gen. Hancock or myself known that Petersburg was to be attacked, Petersburg would have fallen. Gen. Meade.

5 Spelled H-a-i-r on Gilmer's (Rebel) map.

6 First Sergeant Charles E. Pierce having been suffering from a long illness was sent to the hospital the 17th. During his convalescence he was commissioned 1st Lieutenant of the 20th Unattached Co. Mass. H. A., later Co. D, Fourth Regiment, H. A., in which he performed the duties of Adjutant till the end of the war.

7 ‘From that date till July 26, my troops were engaged in the arduous duties incident to the siege operations in front of Petersburg. Severe and almost constant labor (much of it during the night) was required from the men in erecting the formidable earthworks which were thrown up in front of that town. While performing these exhausting labors, the troops were at all times exposed to heavy artillery fire, and to the enemy's of casualties resulted daily.’—Hancock's Official Report.

8 Meade's Report of Campaigns.

9 The loss of the Second Corps from June 13 to July 26 was 6,251; of these, 2,209 were missing.—Hancock's Report, ‘Fifth Epoch.’

10 During the war it was frequently charged against artillerists that they fired into their own troops. Now, to deny that some such cases did occur—due, we do not hesitate to say, either to excited or ignorant gunnery—would be as idle as to deny that our infantry never fired but at the enemy, or never killed men of their own side without design. But the cases coming under the above head probably do not number more than ten per centum of all that are charged, and the author has thought it desirable to explain to that limited public outside of the Tenth, whose eyes may fall upon these lines, the cause of the remaining charges.

In the first place, then, the time fuse, used to explode shells and cut to burn a given number of seconds, was frequently so unreliable that it would burst the shell short of the mark—perhaps among our infantry, if by chance they lay between the guns and the enemy. We have seen them burst within twenty feet of the gun. This would account for many of the remaining charges. But again: Those familiar with the Hotchkiss ammunition, then in use, know that around each shell was a flange of lead which not infrequently flew in fragments a short distance from the gun, and that about the base of the Schenkl shell was a firm mass of papier-mache, which likewise took an early divorce from the projectiles. It requires no ordinary nerve, either in kind or quantity, for men to lie exposed to the fire of the enemy in their front; what more natural, then, than for them, ignorant of the facts given, to conclude, when some of the fragments above mentioned fell among them, that they were receiving the fire of their own side? Indeed, it would practically amount to that. Such a position is unquestionably an ugly one to occupy, and shelling over troops was practised only exceptionally. To strengthen our position in this matter, if it needs it, we cite an illustration from the battle of the Po. We have already alluded in these pages to a battery which raked us with great accuracy. That battery was at least a mile and a half distant, and our guns were elevated accordingly; but we were ordered to cease firing because of the flying metal endangering some of our troops who lay in a hollow not one-fifth that distance away.

The above statements are made with reference to projectiles for rifled guns only. Just how much difficulty arose from the fixed ammunition of the smooth-bores we have neither the experience nor information from which to judge.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
15th (3)
July 26th (2)
June 13th (2)
16th (2)
June 20th, 1864 AD (1)
June 12th, 1864 AD (1)
1864 AD (1)
June 27th (1)
June 19th (1)
June 18th (1)
June 17th (1)
June 16th (1)
June 14th (1)
June 12th (1)
18th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: